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16 March 2000 Edition

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Hebron's child victims

Israeli soldiers maim Palestinian children


Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers regularly target minors in their ongoing occupation of the West Bank. They argue that their policy of deterrence and punishment is a response to a legitimate perceived threat, but there is a sense of David and Goliath about such rivalry.

We're sitting in a Lebanese restaurant in east Jerusalem, discussing the implications of the forthcoming millennial celebrations, which the Israeli authorities are deliberately toning down, both for religious reasons (Judaism celebrated its own millennium some 3,000 years ago) and the sensitive issue of religious extremism (rumours abound of evangelical suicide-bomb cults triggering Armageddon).

Ralph receives a call on his mobile phone; at first he's irritated to be disturbed during dinner, although the nature of his work means the phone must be left on all the time. But the interruption is serious; his employers are instructing him to make inquiries about a young Arab boy, who has just been shot in the head by an Israeli soldier's rubber bullet. Between follow-up calls assessing the extent of the boy's injury and how it occurred, the victim has been transferred by ambulance from Alia Hospital in Hebron, to the neurological unit in Hadassa Hospital, Jerusalem (the bullet has punctured his skull).

Ralph works for TIPH - the Temporary International Presence in the city of Hebron - an unarmed peace-monitoring operation that patrols the West Bank Israeli-occupied town of Hebron. Ralph explains that these bullets are different to the standard issue crowd-controllers which Britain deploys in the Six Counties (I have one which apparently had my name on it, souvenired when I was shot at covering a street riot in West Belfast). The Royal Ulster Constabulary are armed with the large solid plastic variety (about the size of your average roll-on deodorant container), supremely lethal in its own regard. But the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) use smaller, literally rubber-coated bullets with lead cores. These will penetrate the flesh.

It transpired that today, 16 December 1999, Hisham Murtada Yuseph Mujahed, aged 14, had been shot in the town centre of Hebron by an Israeli soldier during some sort of disturbance (presumably stone throwing by Arab boys - unconfirmed).

Because we are in Jerusalem, Ralph is currently TIPH's closest contact to Hadassa Hospital and is required urgently to visit the injured boy. Another of TIPH's officers, George, is alongside, interrupted whilst tucking into his pitta and hummus; they prepare to depart for Hadassa. Further phone calls must first be made to the Palestinian Authority in Hebron, to ensure that the boy's family have been notified. Hadassa Hospital are contacted to seek confirmation on the boy's condition. Hisham's relatives are by his bedside, but he has slipped into a coma.

Jerusalem is out of TIPH's mandated region - Ralph has little authority to issue commands or make recommendations outside the jurisdiction of Hebron. The sense of frustration is prevalent on Ralph and George's expressions; a seriously injured boy lies helpless at the point of death, and they're powerless to act.

Once it has been established that the boy's family and friends are by his bedside and witnesses to the incident are making police statements, there remains little for them to pursue. Reluctantly, the pair continue eating their dinner.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident for the TIPH personnel. Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers regularly target minors in their ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

Peace monitors: The TIPH mandate

Marked by their distinctive cornflower-blue tunics with red logos emblazoned on chest and arm bands, TIPH patrol Hebron's divided city on foot and in marked cars. On call 24 hours a day in staggered shifts, they remain a continuous presence, responding to emergency call-outs as well as general patrols integrating with the citizens of Hebron.

TIPH assist in ``monitoring and reporting the efforts to maintain normal life in the City of Hebron, thus creating a feeling of security among Palestinians in the City of Hebron.''

The formal tasks of TIPH personnel are as follows:

A. to provide by their presence a feeling of security to the Palestinians of Hebron;

B. to help promote stability and an appropriate environment conducive to the enhancement of the well-being of the Palestinians of Hebron and their economic development;

C. to observe the enhancement of peace and prosperity among Palestinians;

D. to assist in the promotion and execution of projects initiated by the donor countries;

E. to encourage economic development and growth in Hebron;

F. to provide reports as set out in paragraph 7 [of the Agreement on TIPH]; and

G. to co-ordinate its activities with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities in accordance with paragraph 7 [of the Agreement on TIPH].

The incident that provided the necessity for a peacekeeping presence dates back to 1994. On 25 February of that year, an Israeli citizen and resident of Kiryat Arba Settlement, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire at the al-Haram al-Ibrahimi Mosque during Friday dawn prayers, killing 29 Palestinian worshippers.

Following UN Security Council Resolution No. 904 condemning the massacre, the Chairman of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, announced the PLO's withdrawal from any further peace negotiations with Israel unless Israel agreed to a presence of international observers in the city of Hebron (which had already been provided for in the Declaration of Principles of 13 September 1993).

On 31 March 1994, representatives from the PLO and Israel signed an agreement asking three countries, Italy, Denmark and Norway, to provide support staff and observers for a Temporary International Presence in the City of Hebron (TIPH). Its main mandate would be to assist in promoting stability and restoring normal life in Hebron. The TIPH mission was subsequently set up on 8 May 1994.

However, the two parties, the PLO and the Israeli government, could not reach an agreement on an extension of the TIPH mandate, and TIPH withdrew from Hebron on 8 August 1994.

The current operation stems from 28 September 1995 and the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Hebron, was divided into two sectors, Area H1, in which the majority of the Palestinian population resides and in which the Palestinian police assumed responsibility for internal security and public order; and Area H2, a smaller area comprising all the Israeli residents of Hebron together with some 20,000 Palestinians, in which all responsibilities for security and public order remained with Israel. Civil powers and responsibilities in both areas were transferred to the Palestinian Authority. A new agreement on TIPH was signed on 21 January 1997 (following the Israeli partial redeployment that took place on 17 January), and from 1 February 1997 the multinational TIPH mission entered into force. Increased to six participating countries, those which supplied personnel were Denmark, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.

Israel's impunity from public censure

On 17 December 1999, I visit a shop within the H2 souk (Arabic Hasbahe market) to meet a 16-year-old boy, Ziad Ghazi Al Batsh from Al Shuhada Street, who has had his nose broken by Israeli soldiers the previous evening. The boy explains that he was walking home after buying provisions at the pharmacy, when he was arrested by Israeli soldiers in a covered jeep. They drove him to a discreet location and viciously beat him up, confiscating his bloodstained jacket to hide evidence of their violence. After wiping clean his face, they abandoned him. His nose is broken and swollen twice its size. Because of the limited insurance coverage that his family has, he will have to wait two months, until 28 February 2000, his 17th birthday, before he can get it operated on. He shrugs his shoulders resignedly; meantime he continues working in his family's clothing store, serving customers with a balloon-like nose. Obviously, there is no compensation available to Ziad, because there is no proof that it was Israeli soldiers who battered his face.

On Wednesday 29 December, in the H2 fresh-food sector of the souk, I witness the arrest of a 12-year-old boy, Fouad Abu Hadid. It seems the Arab boy, with a group of his young friends, has been heckling a squad of Israeli soldiers.

He is marched at gunpoint away from his buddies, then made to sit in the sun, back pressed against a concrete pillar, whilst the soldier supervising his arrest berates him continuously. The squad of IDF soldiers themselves are scarcely beyond teenage years. TIPH personnel arrive on the scene to observe the arrest of the minor, which under the covenant of the Geneva Convention is illegal. In response to this unexpected arrival of the peace monitors, the boy is marched off to al Shuhada Street IDF compound, out of the public eye. The squad of young soldiers approach the TIPH vehicle, challenging the monitors' authority to make notes. When George asks why the boy has been arrested, he is insultingly called a `Zoub' (which translates from Hebrew to `Dick').

TIPH has documented literally hundreds of reports of injuries sustained by minors during Israeli security operations. I have been unable to access them, because TIPH produces several kinds of reports, some for internal use, some which are submitted to committees (where the Palestinians, the Israelis and TIPH are represented) and some which are submitted to the governments of the six participating countries who supply personnel. But none of these reports are made public, nor does TIPH comment publicly on specific incidents mentioned in the reports.

At the interface between H1 and H2 is the location of the aforementioned al-Ibrahimi mosque, where Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein ran amok with a gun in 1994. Alongside, just within H2, is the dominating structure of a synagogue, one of four Jewish holy sites within Hebron. Pedestrian access from the Jewish quarter on the hilltop down to the synagogue was through a short narrow street, `Prayer Walk', surrounded by Palestinian homes. In mid-1998, some Jews were making their way through this Arabic neighbourhood when they were shot at by an unknown sniper. One of them sustained a bullet wound in the arm.

In response to this security threat, almost the entire neighbourhood were moved out to temporarily lodge with relatives elsewhere, ostensibly under an order to `upgrade' their homes. Once contractors had begun the necessary rewiring of electricity and rendering of the stone walls, the Israeli Army compulsorily-purchased the buildings that aligned the path to the synagogue. Using the `Freedom of Access to Holy Sites' agreement signed between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, contract work was suspended and the homes were made uninhabitable through demolition. A few homes still stand where Palestinian families reside amidst this shambles, their children play between exposed rusting iron spikes and accumulated debris.

For the Palestinians who inhabited these dwellings it is a shameful state of affairs. Houses are passed down through the generations along the male lineage; a home is a distinguished family heirloom bequeathing important familial memories as well as property.

But, typically in this dirty war of reciprocity, the children are those directly affected by the decisions of `security' forces. Uprooted from their schools and friends, scattered amongst relatives in overcrowded homes throughout the West Bank, the Palestinian children from this neighbourhood have been punished to allow supposed `safe' passage for citizens from the dominant culture to pray.

I met a 12-year-old boy who had his kneecap shattered by an Israeli soldier in early 1999. The boy, Jawad Al Mohtasbe, whose father runs the souvenir shop directly in front of the synagogue, was kicking a football in the street when an IDF soldier on the adjacent vehicular checkpoint asked him to pass it to him. Jawad refused. The soldier levelled his M16 machine gun at him. Jawad dared him to shoot, hopelessly underestimating Israeli soldiers' capacity for sheer vindictiveness. The soldier fired into Jawad's leg, shattering his kneecap. Jawad's six-year-old sister Sa'da sustained head injuries from flying shrapnel, which also punctured their shop-front security grille.

The soldier was arrested and eventually tried; locals affirm that he was merely fined and transferred elsewhere, allowed to remain on active service. Jawad hobbles about now, a plastic brace supports his crippled right leg, which will never kick a football again.

The time taken off school whilst his injuries healed, the costs in physiotherapy and transportation to and from hospital will not be reimbursed. No compensation money is forthcoming from the Israeli Defence Force.

Many of the Arab child casualties have happened in so-called intermediate conflict situations, such as throwing stones at the occupying army. The Israeli security forces argue that their policy of deterrence and punishment, for example quelling disturbances with rubber bullets, is a response to a legitimate perceived threat. Yet there is a sense of David and Goliath about such rivalry, although the Biblical tale about the Jewish boy confronting the giant bully is turned on its head in this contemporary context. For the Israelis now are armed with M16 and Uzi submachine guns, and the Hebron Arabs with scarcely more than a handful of rocks.

TIPH employees' names have been changed for this article. All other names are real.

Although TIPH provided invaluable help with contacts in the city of Hebron, they did not assist in the researching of this article, as this would be beyond the remit of their legal mandate - Alec Smart

An Phoblacht
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